LoveLakeland’s December 2019 CityMaker

Patricia Starr

By Jonathan Camargo

Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio

It seems that the holiday season never fails to bring out the best in our community. With colder weather comes warmer hearts, and although our snowmen are sparse and our sleds tucked away, our compassion is there, no matter the day.

Our December 2019 Lakeland CityMaker is an individual whose heart beats in tune with the unseen need of our community. From Easter to Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving to Christmas, she gives back to the less fortunate without asking for anything more than a smile in return.

For Something Better

Patricia Starr is both a mother and a humanitarian. She moved to Lakeland in 1980. Originally from West Virginia, it was a job opportunity for her late husband that brought them both to the Central Florida area.

In present day, Patricia is retired, but her involvement in our community has never been greater. She’s the founder of Project Care Outreach, a Lakeland-based nonprofit that’s faithfully served our community since 1995. To date, the organization has provided thousands of holiday dinners for local seniors and homeless individuals. Their service to our community, however, is far from one-dimensional.

For the Community

It sometimes feels like there’s never enough time in a day. Those same 24 hours we had when we were younger felt infinitely longer then than they do today. It’s no different for Patricia. When she’s not watching her grandkids, she’s dedicating her time, effort, and energy toward the production of community events for anyone in need of a helping hand.

Project Care Outreach was born from a simple idea: to give back. According to a report published by the Homeless Coalition of Polk County earlier this year, there are approximately 415 homeless individuals in the Lakeland area, but it’s important to note that this number doesn’t account for homeless children, nor does it include the number of individuals sleeping in their cars or on a friend’s couch.

No matter how you look at it, need surrounds us. Its presence is felt every day of the year, although it shines brightest around the holiday season. While many of us were fortunate enough to spend Thanksgiving in a warm home, surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones, there are those in our community that can only dream of such luxuries.

To give back and show they care, Patricia and a team of volunteers held their first Thanksgiving dinner for the community back in 1993. Although only 50 individuals showed up that inaugural year, it was easy to see how much this simple act of kindness truly meant. For some individuals, this wasn’t just a holiday dinner – it was the first real meal they’d had in years.

Deliveries from the Heart

In 2019, Project Care Outreach continued its Thanksgiving tradition for the 27th year in a row, delivering hundreds of meals to needy individuals across the Lakeland community. Ultimately, it’s the kind regards and the gentle thanks that makes it all worthwhile, even when the hours of cooking are long and the months of preparation stressful.

Though nothing they do is for the glitz, glamour, or spotlight, Patricia and her many volunteers have made such an impact that even our local government is taking notes.

An Individual’s Impact

Stacy started working for the city in 1987. A 17-year-old at the time, it was with youthful vigor and a passion for plants that he was drawn to Lakeland’s rose gardens. Here, he tended to some of our town’s finest flowers, though working for the city often took him elsewhere.

Among the many hats he’s worn in our community, Stacy has done everything from landscaping to working in the city nursery, but there’s always been one common element following him wherever life seems to take him: his unwilted, and unrelenting, love for plants. 

As a child, Stacy knew he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. In present day, he’s now living his childhood dream, albeit it in a slightly different fashion.

“[Patricia’s] organization feeds hundreds and hundreds of those in need as well as delivering meals to seniors who are shut in at a number of assisted and retirement communities,” shared Lakeland City Commissioner Justin Troller. “She provide[ hope to those that are most likely to feel left behind and are struggling just to survive.”

“[Patricia’s] organization feeds hundreds and hundreds of those in need as well as delivering meals to seniors who are shut in at a number of assisted and retirement communities,” shared Lakeland City Commissioner Justin Troller. “She provide[ hope to those that are most likely to feel left behind and are struggling just to survive.”

Similar to Thanksgiving, the nonprofit also hosts large-scale dinner events for both Christmas and Easter, but it’s not just meals that Project Care Outreach helps to deliver. At their annual Christmas party, the organization spreads cheer near and far with a live band, gifts for the children in attendance, and an opportunity to meet the Kringles themselves.

“A lot of the kids are from different schools as we find out who all the needy kids are,” Patricia explained. “This year we’re having all the single moms from the Florida Baptist Children’s Home come out with their children.”

Keeping with tradition, the nonprofit also hosts an Easter egg hunt every April. In the late summer months, they host a back-to-school drive as well as a youth day event, where Patricia and her team hand out backpacks and other school supplies to needy students in our community. That’s not to say the need ends when the final bell rings, though.

To help with life outside the classroom, Project Care Outreach started its ‘Bags for Kids’ program for children in our community who live out of hotel rooms or cars. These at-risk children often go without, but Patricia and her team do their best to provide what they can.

“We take them bags of toiletry items, consisting of shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, feminine products for the girls, razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, and stuff like that,” Patricia said. “We try to help to the best of our ability that we can.”

Our Not-So-Distant Past

Lakeland was originally slated to be the Central Florida boomtown as all roads led back to here. It’s for this reason that Lakeland was nearly named “Rome City”. 

For a time, we shared our space with a rival town: Acton. Located on the southern side of Lake Parker, Acton had its own railroad depot, which Lakeland – at the time – did not. Under yet-to-be-determined circumstances, the depot burnt down and the town went into steady decline until it disappeared completely in 1906. 

Where There’s A Will

Providing for a community isn’t easy, nor is it for the faint of heart. Events like these require months of planning, strategizing, and securing of donations, sponsorships, and the like. It’s an endeavor of love for the nonprofit, although time and effort aren’t the only things making magic happen in our town.

“The hardest thing we have to do with this charity is worrying about raising enough money to put the function on,” Patricia explained. “100% of every bit of money that we take in goes toward that event. I don’t pay myself for it, and everybody who helps out is a volunteer. I don’t even pay to have the expense of an office, a phone bill, or an extra electric bill; I have an office in my home that I use.”

Fortunately, Patricia isn’t alone on her journey – she shares her love for our community with hundreds of volunteers that have selflessly dedicated their time to Project Care Outreach over the years, many of whom return annually to pledge their support for those in need.

“It’s all because of the volunteers that we have that we can get together and put something spectacular on,” Patricia expressed.

It’s from those same volunteers that she draws her greatest strength. One year, Patricia was hospitalized and unable to put on the annual Thanksgiving dinner. It was almost chalked up to a loss before one of her regular volunteers stepped up to the plate, managing to put on the dinner completely by themselves. Their years of experience working closely with Patricia had more than paid their dividends.

In present-day, Patricia never fails to pay thanks to those that volunteer alongside her, but there’s a special place in her heart for those that have been there year-after-year since they were kids. None stand out more than Keila Piquet, her right-hand person for the past few years.

“Her father brought her to help people just like I did my children. Today she is 30 years old,” Patricia said. “Now, she helps me with everything.”

A Steady Look to the Future

For Patricia, it’s the Lakeland community that she loves the most. The “close knit neighborhood” we’ve fostered here in the Central Florida area is as unique as it is homey, and she’s to thank for much of that.

“Patricia’s heart, compassion, and spirit of giving back make Lakeland a great place to live, learn, work, and play,” Commissioner Troller shared. “She [makes] Lakelanders, especially those in need, feel as if our community truly cares for their well being.”

Looking to the future, Patricia hopes that our small piece of oasis continues to grow just like it is, never forgetting its roots as its branches reach for the sky. From those very roots, a sapling of sympathy sprouts forward, reminding us that need isn’t one person’s problem – it’s all of ours.

“You never know,” Patricia said. “That could be your situation sometime. You never know what the future holds for someone.”

To keep up with Project Care Outreach, you can follow their Facebook Page:
Project Care Outreach